Susan Middleton

I consider myself a portrait photographer. My subjects are plants and animals, and I hope to evoke an emotional response.

Susan Middleton is a photographer specializing in portraits of animals and plants. She has been photographing rare and endangered species since 1986, and her work, with collaborator David Liittschwager, is collected in four books, two published by National Geographic Books and two by Chronicle Books. The working process developed by Middleton and Liittschwager is documented in an Emmy Award–winning National Geographic television special America’s Endangered Species: Don’t Say Goodbye, 1997. A book of Middleton’s photographs with text by Mary Ellen Hannibal, Evidence of Evolution: Darwin’s Cabinet of Curiosities was published by Abrams in  2009 and Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life in 2014.

In pursuing her work, Middleton has traveled across the United States and has lived for extended periods in Africa and Hawaii. She is a certified diver and has accompanied scientific oceanographic expeditions. She generally isolates animals and plants in studio-style settings with plain backdrops, constructing what she calls “mini-studios” for live creatures photographed in the field. Biologist Edward O. Wilson has commented that “[her] remarkable portraits speak to the heart. In the end, their kind of testimony may count as much toward conserving life as all the data and generalizations of science.”

Susan Middleton was born in 1948 and holds a BA in sociology with a minor in art from Santa Clara University, California. She apprenticed in photography by working as an assistant to Richard Avedon. Middleton chaired the department of photography of the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, from 1982 to 1995. In 2006 she produced a thirty-minute documentary film focusing on animals and plants of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Middleton has said that she isolates her subjects from their environments so we can perceive them as individuals, “each in its own right.” Many locations where she shoots are in remote and difficult terrain, and often she must wait long periods for an animal to become comfortable in the setup she creates for the photo. “When I photograph an animal, I always wonder how we, as humans, are known by that animal,” she has said.

Her photographs have been exhibited in many museums, among them the American Museum of Natural History, New York; the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.; and the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. Her work is in the collections of those institutions and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Honolulu Academy of Arts, among other public collections. In 2007, Middleton won the Endangered Species Coalition Champion Award for Education and Outreach and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. She makes her home in San Francisco, California.

-Kathan Brown, Crown Point Press

  • Susan Middleton at Crown Point Press, 2008 (5 minutes)

    Artist Susan Middleton describes making a color photogravure at Crown Point Press in San Francisco, 2008.

Subscribe to our mailing list